Geoffrey Hill Essay - Critical Essays


From his earliest work, religion and history have dominated Geoffrey Hill’s poetry. As a religious poet, he defends no particular orthodoxy but instead explores various positions, often incorporating later poems in a sequence to reject positions upheld earlier. He often meditates on World Wars I and II, concentrating especially on Adolf Hitler’s murder of the Jews.

Hill’s work since For the Unfallen has rung changes on a few constant themes: bitter criticism of the modern world, in particular the power and might that produced senseless slaughter and culminated in the Nazis’ mass murder of Jews; his futile search for solace in premodern society and religion; and the inability of Christianity to provide consolation. His difficult rhymes and obscure diction mirror his pessimistic frame of mind.

For the Unfallen

Such themes surfaced in Hill’s first major collection, For the Unfallen. The book begins with “Genesis,” one of the few poems Hill kept from a small pamphlet published while he was in college. The poem describes a series of walks taken in Worcestershire. In part 1, Hill dreams of creating a godlike language through poetry. Just as Adam was given authority to name all the animals of creation and thus to rule over them, so the poet can bring his own world into existence through verbal artifice.

Hill makes this suggestion only to withdraw it in part 2, where his poetic persona is a skeptic withdrawn from the world. However, Hill has not pictured the poet as creator in order to denounce this view for undue pride. Instead, he proves elusive, hinting that a poet who acknowledges humanity’s lapse from perfection can return strengthened from a confrontation with sin and disillusion to then create a harmonious world evocative of Eden before the Fall; the difference from the initial claim to mastery is the poet’s realization of the precarious nature of his vision.

For the Unfallen also includes a six-part sequence, “Of Commerce and Society,” a pessimistic view of history critical of the development of European society since the Renaissance. Commercial values have gained control of the major European states. The pursuit of money and power is inimical to art. The last poem in the sequence, “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian,” describes a Jamesian artist whose devotion to high artistic standards leads to conflict with the public and a rejection of his work comparable to Christian martyrdom.

The attitude so far described fits with Hill’s devotion to the Tory Radicals of the nineteenth century. The “Young England” movement rejected the business values of the Industrial Revolution. Instead, figures such as Benjamin Disraeli preached a return to the standards of medieval England. The Oxford philosopher T. H. Green, the subject of an essay in Hill’s Lords of Limit, criticized capitalism for its undue accent on the separation of individuals, as did the Christian socialist F. D. Maurice, another key figure in this antibusiness tradition.

One might expect Hill to support a return to tradition, but the poet refuses to be pinned down. In “The Lowlands of Holland” he declares Europe dead because of paralysis wrought by tradition. Folk songs, used throughout the sequence, do not support a return to “Merrie Old England”; they instead suggest the weight of the past. Holland, the earliest center of European capitalism and a great center of art and culture, lacks sufficient achievement to stave off decay. Like Pound, Hill dislikes finance with savage intensity.

Perhaps the artist can redeem society, as another poem in the sequence, “The Death of Shelley,” suggests. Throughout most of his short life, Percy Bysshe Shelley was devoted to the French Revolution. He thought that the overthrow of superstition and barbarous customs would inaugurate a new era for humanity. The biblical promises of a new world would be fulfilled by human effort alone, with no supernatural intervention needed. In this hoped-for transformation, poets, the “unacknowledged legislators of mankind,” would play a key role.

Hill treats Shelley’s hopes with sympathy, yet rejects them. The sequence makes evident Hill’s belief that twentieth century events make millenarian optimism impossible. In particular, Hitler’s murder of several million Jews, as well as other horrors of the twentieth century, compel Hill to reject a belief in progress. Even a society run by artists cannot blot out the historical record of world wars.

King Log

Hill’s next major collection, King Log, appeared nearly a decade later, in 1968. It included the contents of a beautifully printed pamphlet, Preghiere, issued four years previously, as well as other poems.

Since Preghiere is an Italian word for “prayers,” the poems in this sequence suggest that the artist as priest can overcome political oppression through ascetic devotion to art. For example, “Men Are a Mockery of Angels” is spoken in the voice of the sixteenth century poet and philosopher Tommaso Campanella, a Platonist who believed in the rule of an intellectual and artistic elite. He devised an elaborate utopia, described in La città del sole (1623; City of the Sun, 1880). Hill depicts Campanella as a joyous person in spite of his imprisonment during the Spanish Inquisition. While jailed, he contemplates his philosophy and thus gains a certain detachment, so that his grim physical surroundings do not drag him into despair.

Hill’s endorsement of this view of the artist is at best equivocal, as becomes clear in a later poem in the sequence, “Domaine Publique,” which commemorates the death of Robert Desnos, a French poet who perished at the Nazi death camp of Terezin. Hill imagines Desnos mocking the Christian practice of asceticism. The charnel house the Nazis created was not a means of spiritual purgation. When millions are murdered, asceticism loses its significance. At any rate, so Desnos contends in the poem; although Hill seems largely in agreement, his undertone of detachment hints that perhaps the case for asceticism has not been altogether overcome.

The poems in King Log not included in the 1964 pamphlet center on two sequences: “Funeral Music” and “The Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz.” The first consists of eight sonnets in blank verse about the English Wars of the Roses. The initial sonnet describes the execution of John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester, at Pomfret Castle in 1470. Tiptoft, a Christian, welcomed death as the means of attaining a higher spiritual state. (Christian doctrine forbade suicide, so the initiative had to come from others.) Tiptoft arranged the details of his own execution: three blows of the executioner’s ax to symbolize the three figures in the Trinity.

Hill finds the ascetic ideal appealing, even in the extreme form Tiptoft practiced. The flesh-and-blood world, in this view, conceals reality: like the cave in Plato’s Politeia (fourth century b.c.e.; Republic, 1701), from which one must escape to gain genuine knowledge. However, the poet suggests that an attitude like Tiptoft’s may conceal a strong will to power, so that far from seeking to exit the world, Tiptoft might instead seek fame for his discipline through the acclaim others accord him.

Hill does not claim that this reduction of spirit to power is true; he merely suggests the possibilities, leaving the reader caught amid ambiguity. Hill’s main assertion is that human beings are incapable of penetrating the world.

The two positions sketched in the initial sonnet remain locked in struggle throughout “Funeral Music.” Several of the poems show strong interest in Averroës, an Arab philosopher whose work influenced Thomas Aquinas and other Christian philosophers of the Middle Ages. Averroës, following the teaching of Aristotle, emphasized contemplation as the highest aim of life, a doctrine taught in book 10 of Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea (n.d.; Nicomachean Ethics, 1797). More controversially, Averroës came down firmly on one side of a famous Aristotelian dispute. According to Averroës, Aristotle thought that human minds are not really distinct. The “active intellect”—that is, the power of thought—is a single entity. Only will, emotion, and perception belong to individuals.

Hill finds this view congenial. The aim of ascetic discipline is to sink the person into the Universal Mind: One’s individual personality does not count and is sloughed off. What prevents Hill from full commitment to this position, besides his liking for ambiguity? The answer lies in the subject matter of the sequence dealing with the Wars of the Roses. The violence and destruction of the wars, among the bloodiest in English history, prevent him from affirming humanity’s goodness. Human beings are rapacious animals, according to Hill’s sonnet on the Battle of Towton, the most destructive engagement of the wars. Much of the poem consists of diary entries by a soldier who believes that the real world lies elsewhere and that death in battle is a means to enter a higher realm. Hill’s ironic language suggests that the soldier has not grasped the reality of the battle. Far from a spiritual exercise, the struggle is an evil display of lust for power and plunder. The soldier has used philosophy and asceticism to conceal what is taking place, both in the world and in his own soul.

Death and the destruction of war form the principal subject of another poem in King Log, “Ovid in the Third Reich.” An artist living in Hitler’s Germany claims that the pursuit of spiritual values will keep him immune from the horrors of the Third Reich and its führer. The speaker’s clichés make apparent Hill’s firm stand here and his repudiation of the standpoint of the artist. The artist’s alleged withdrawal is in fact complicity with the Nazis, since it turns a blind eye to crime and disguises the pursuit of physical safety under the mantle of ascetic withdrawal from the world. Hill’s poem does not deal with a “made-up” attitude. Many writers and artists responded to the Third Reich by practicing “inner emigration.” Although Hill strongly sympathizes with asceticism, he thinks that the position just sketched is an untenable dualism. “Ovid in the Third Reich” is probably Hill’s most unequivocal political statement.

The reader will by now have the impression that Hill paints a grim, sour picture of the human race. While this is to a large extent true, Hill yet again cannot be easily captured by formula. The second major sequence of King Log, “The Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz,” manifests a different mood.

Arrurruz is an imaginary Spanish poet who lived at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. The years of his maturity coincide with a period of foment among Spanish intellectuals, resulting from Spain’s disastrous defeat by the United States in 1898. Although Arrurruz does not directly concern himself with Spanish politics, he faces a sadness of his own. His wife has recently died, and he mourns her death. What should he do? He considers asceticism: Perhaps he ought now to abandon sexual desire as a vain thing. This solution appeals to Arrurruz, but cheerfulness keeps breaking in, and the Spanish poet finds that he cannot abandon women. He remembers his wife not only with sorrow but also with delight, and the poem ends in a witty rather than an elegiac stance. Poetry itself has erotic force, and indulgence in wordplay is a form of sexual pleasure. The sequence differs in style as well as content from Hill’s usual practice. It is direct and easy to read, rather than complicated and historically allusive. It won high praise from critics like Martin Dodsworth who are normally inclined to criticize Hill’s obscurity.

Mercian Hymns

The poet had not abandoned his difficult style, as his next book, Mercian Hymns, made evident. The thirty poems in this book are written in a ritualistic language meant to be chanted as much as read. The “versets” of which the work is composed manifest Hill’s knowledge of Anglo-Saxon bardic rhythms. The entire work constitutes an epic describing the reign of King Offa, an eighth century ruler from Mercia and the first Anglo-Saxon monarch to bring most of England under unified control. Not coincidentally, Hill is himself from Mercia, and the epic is also an account of his childhood.

Although the verse forms imitate a typical Anglo-Saxon song of praise for a king, Mercian Hymns is by no means a celebration of King Offa. Quite the contrary, Hill satirizes the king’s vanity and lust for power. The name “Offa” suggests “offal,” a parallel Hill is not slow to exploit.

Naturally, a poet of Hill’s depth has much more in mind than pricking the boasts of a fatuous monarch. Hill intends the poem to be an analysis of a certain type of power. As a boy, the king dreamed of being in command, and his attitude when he gains the throne reflects his youthful preoccupations. His subjects are like a child’s toys, to be played with and manipulated as he wishes. He lacks a genuine sense of the reality of others.

The indictment extends beyond King Offa. The poet himself views words as his creation: He too seeks power, though of a less immediately destructive kind than that of the king. A leitmotif of Hill’s work is that rejection of the real world for a spiritual or aesthetic quest cannot entirely succeed; one cannot respond to the dangers of political power by aesthetic retreat. All human beings bear the burden of original sin, and escape from this dire condition cannot come from human effort.

One of the poems in Mercian Hymns, “Crowning of Offa,” reveals more fully Hill’s attitude toward the past. Hill notes the splendor of the coronation and the church; he does not view these altogether ironically and in fact genuinely admires them. He points out, however, that eighth century Anglo-Saxon society rested...

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